Over the past decade I have published many books. Six were using traditional publishers and three were self-published using the Lulu website. My tenth book is about to come out this week and will be published straight to the Amazon Kindle format.
Because I am a published author and I have used both the traditional and self-publishing routes my friends often ask how they can get published and is it better to just self-publish immediately or spend a long time trying to find a traditional publisher willing to publish their work?
My own experience is non-fiction, so although I do have a lot of ideas about how fiction publishing works from talking to people in the industry, it's not something I have ever tried. My own focus has been taking a subject I know well, writing about it, and then hoping that enough people will be interested enough to buy it.
None of my present work is going to trouble the Man Booker shortlist, but there is nothing to be ashamed of in writing works of non-fiction. It may not seem as artistic as writing romance or thrillers, but if you can still make a living as a writer then who can argue that it's not a good thing to be doing?
First of all though, if you are thinking of writing a book then here are a few things to think about:
- You are unlikely to make a lot of money, despite the telephone-number royalties you see JK Rowling making. Business, management, professional and other non-fiction titles don't sell in huge numbers so you need to consider publishing non-fiction for the joy of contributing to the pool of knowledge in that subject, plus it may become a valuable calling card that gives you work in other areas - such as consulting or speaking. If you want to get on the public speaking circuit then being an author in your area of expertise is almost essential.
- You need to think commercially. Publishers are not in this for the love of it. They want a commercial product they can turn into real returns... so they are unlikely to be interested in uncle Tom's memoirs of fishing on the river Thames - unless there is some way you can prove that the book-buying public really needs to see this title.
- You need to take advice from people who have published in the area you plan to publish. As mentioned, most of my work has been in non-fiction management titles, but I am straying outside this zone gradually. If you are thinking of fiction then I would recommend reading how horror author Stephen King started out in writing and also the views of literary agent Carole Blake. This kind of advice gives you a much better idea of how to balance the idea of what you are producing as art against what will actually sell.
- You need to think about marketing. Sure, the publisher has to do a lot of this, but the author can really help with networks, media contacts, and a social media audience... The author can make all the difference.
- You don't always need to get an agent first. In fact without any track record it can be almost impossible to get an agent. If you show samples of what you can write and you have a good synopsis for an entire book then publishers will listen to you directly - or you can self-publish and prove that you have an audience before approaching a major publisher.
- As mentioned, if you can't make progress quickly on finding a publisher then you may want to consider self-publishing and then using your published book to secure a deal at a major publisher. Sometimes it can help just to have it out there and available on sites such as Amazon. Lulu.com is a great site for this because they will publish your book with no upfront fees - just shared royalties on sales. It's proper publishing with a real ISBN catalogue number, just the distribution is harder because it's going to only be available at online book stores - your customers need to find your book online, they will never stumble into it in a bookstore.
It is important to remember that the entire publishing marketplace is changing very quickly. Even the major traditional publishers are exploring how e-books can support their main titles, rather than just considering the e-book as a poor substitute for the real thing.
In his 2008 book, 'Here Comes Everybody', The American writer Clay Shirky described how people are organising themselves without organisations. This is an important change to the world of book publishing.
Traditionally an editor and publisher decided what will be published. The audience had an expectation that if a book was published then it must be good - because it has been approved by a publisher and their team of experts. Now anyone can publish a book directly to the Amazon platform or using a tool like Lulu - so there must be a lot of absolute junk out there. Of course there is, but if a self-published book is good and the author promotes it then it will find an audience - and in the case of books like the 'Fifty Shades...' series it may be picked up by major publishers and promoted globally.
In most cases today, especially for fiction, the self-publishing route will be your first step to success. Agents and major publishers will really only be interested in your book if you have a product that is written and has been shown to generate some interest. The days when a writer could scribble an 'idea' for a book and be commissioned on an enormous advance before anything is even written are long gone - unless you are already famous in some other field.
However, there is a blended type of publishing model that could also be interesting if you are convinced that your idea is fantastic, but you don't want to invest the months of effort writing your book only to find that it sells two copies. Unbound offers a crowdsourced publication process that allows a potential author to pitch their project to the world with a budget. If enough people pledge to pay in advance so the budget is met then the project can go ahead.
A friend of mine, Sue Black, has recently used this process to create a history of how Bletchley Park was saved from decay. Alan Turing and the wartime codebreakers at Bletchley Park arguably changed the course of history in the twentieth century, but books about historical events are alway a gamble so this approach ensured that Sue knew she had an audience before completing the work on the book.
It is worth remembering that self-publishing to the Kindle format using the Amazon KDP platform does has some very distinct advantages over traditional publishing. The book is immediately available globally and reading on devices is now very common - it's not just about the Kindle hardware, people are reading on iPhones, iPads, Android devices... look around on your morning commute and how many people are reading a traditional paper book today?
With services like Lulu and Amazon out there you don't need to pay anything to be published. There are plenty of ads that still ask 'Do you want to be a published author?' offering to get your book printed for a "small" fee. Well Amazon charges nothing, Lulu charges nothing. All these services make money by charging a royalty when you sell something, so the better your book sells the more they make.
The choice is yours. Personally I'm very comfortable publishing direct to Kindle. I have used the traditional route and today I value the immediacy and global reach of the Kindle platform above the supposed credibility of a traditional publisher, but I have the luxury of having previously published the old-fashioned way. If you have never published at all then you might still want to achieve that status.
However you choose to publish, remember that it is a business. The author needs to get involved in promoting the book. It's a product and even good books fail to sell because they are just not marketed well.
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